Archipelago is a historical fantasy serial with multiple new episodes appearing every month written by Charlotte Ashley, Kurt Hunt, and Andrew Leon Hudson. Imagine a blend of Moby Dick, Pirates of the Caribbean, Master & Commander, and Game of Thrones — with Lovecraftian monsters lurking beneath the surface!

Archipelago isn’t just about storytelling, though. Readers will have the opportunity to influence events as the adventure develops, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes devastating. To take part, you can support the project through Patreon.

 

I was told I could write about anything, so I, being of generally sunny disposition and always inclined to take a mile when offered an inch, would like to discuss death, disaster, and famine. Specifically: why they’re so great.

Now, before you judge me too harshly, let me explain.

Writers are often asked where we get our ideas. The usual response is a shrug… “here and there.” The cranky response, exemplified by Harlan Ellison, is a smart-ass comment: “Poughkeepsie. There’s a guy there, you mail him twenty-five bucks and he sends you ideas.” The real answer is “everything.” Personal experience? Yes. Weird guy on the subway? Yes. History? Definitely.

In the case of Archipelago, the collaborative fantasy serial I’m writing with Charlotte Ashley and Andrew Leon Hudson, I draw on the history and folklore of the first English efforts to establish settlements in North America, which were marked by, you guessed it: death, disaster and famine (with just a touch of cannibalism garnish). These things are terrible to experience, but that’s exactly what makes them so compelling to read about. And to a writer, they’re a gift. History can be a springboard.

The real-life mystery of Roanoke is a prime example. In the late 16th Century, colonists stopped at Roanoke Island (off the coast of what is now North Carolina) to pick up troops that had been garrisoned there, but found only abandoned buildings and a skeleton. Knowing a good omen when they saw one, they decided to settle down. But they discovered quite quickly they weren’t especially welcome (due primarily to their predecessor settlers burning a Native American village to the ground) and were generally unprepared. More than 100 colonists remained in the struggling settlement on Roanoke Island while the Governor returned to England to seek aid. When he returned three years later, the settlers had disappeared.

Decades later, in the spring of 1607, a new settlement was built just inland from the coast of what would become Virginia. Mosquito-plagued, disease-ridden, and over-reliant on outside supplies… to call it “hard-scrabble” would be far too gentle of a term. In a remarkable display of imagination, it was named after King James: James Fort, soon to be known as Jamestown.

Like Roanoke, Jamestown is central to American colonial mythology. Now known as the first permanent English settlement in North America, it was a grim undertaking in those early days. Catastrophic failure always loomed, through the first delivery of food and supplies from England (the so-called “First Supply”) and the second.

But true disaster didn’t arrive until the Third Supply—or rather, its failure.

Picture it. 500 settlers at Jamestown. Disease running rampant. Food running low. Time running out. Every day, looking for the sails of the Sea Venture—the ship leading the Third Supply dispatched from England. Imagine the fading hope, waiting for relief. For life itself.

Only the Sea Venture never arrives.

It has been caught in vicious storms. To avoid a fatal wreck, the ship is intentionally run aground at Bermuda. (Speaking of “where do writers get their ideas,” the wreck of the Sea Venture is believed to have been a primary inspiration for a different fantasy tale: Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)

The survivors of the Sea Venture built two new crafts: the Patience (which seems like a very passive-aggressive name, considering the circumstances) and the Deliverance (which just seems self-aggrandizing). But winter had set in. No one was going anywhere.

By the time the Patience and the Deliverance reached Jamestown, roughly 440 of the 500 settlers were dead. The winter of 1609-1610 became known as the Starving Time. As sinister as that sounds, it doesn’t even reflect the full horror… centuries later, we would find evidence that at least one teenage girl had been butchered for meat that winter.

The leaders of the Third Supply decided the situation at Jamestown was hopeless. Rather than deliver fresh supplies and new residents, they evacuated the survivors and headed back to England.

And here we split. This is where the Roanoke stories of Archipelago become “alt” history.

In the real world: Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, leading the Fourth Supply, intercepted the Patience and the Deliverance in the James River. He forced them back to the abandoned settlement, and, freshly supplied, Jamestown earned its place in history.

In the world of the Archipelago: De La Warr is busy. Britain has discovered a mystical portal in the Caribbean that leads to another world, and all its energies are directed there. Jamestown—indeed, all of the Americas—has fallen to the bottom of the proverbial “to do” list. The Patience and the Deliverance, in flight from the Starving Time, are instead intercepted by John Dare and his companions. Elizabeth, a survivor of the Starving Time, is drawn south and becomes entangled in their mysterious investigation of Roanoke Island. There they find a portal of their own and, along with the other colonists, lay secret claim to it by settling in the ruins of the infamous lost colony of Roanoke (as if anything good could come from that).

This is how history can inform fiction. Writers can draw setting, characters, “world-building,” and motivations from real circumstances. Just as importantly, we can seek to capture the mood of a specific time and place. In Archipelago, I’ve dropped a mismatched group of misfits into the doom-laden brink of disaster (and its aftermath), or, as a certain captain would say, “so here is us, on the raggedy edge.” That mood permeates the stories, and hopefully helps root everything in a context that feels real.

From there, fiction extrapolates. What would it be like to survive the Starving Time? To love someone lost at Roanoke? On the more speculative side: what would happen if the early colonial impulse to dominate was redirected into an alien world? How would the technological leap of “magic” artifacts change colonial society? From that historical seed of death, disaster, and famine, infinite stories can sprout.

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